Of Love and Unknowns

There is a species of apologetic moves that I seriously dislike, mainly because they seem so empty on the face of it that when intelligent people say such things, I wonder if there is any point to the conversation any more. I run into these moves coming more from thoughtful, liberal religious people than from conservatives, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they have universal appeal.

A recent article by Lisa Miller on Newsweek has two of these moves on display. First,

Submitting faith to proof is absurd. Reason defines one kind of reality (what we know); faith defines another (what we don’t know). Reasonable believers can live with both at once.

Arggh! The unknown is just the unknown, not a sign of the supernatural!

In physics, for example, we get plenty of opportunity to get acquainted with the unknown as yet (but we’re working on it), the unknown but we don’t have much of a clue (but we can speculate), the unknown but we don’t care (not interesting), the unknown because there is probably nothing to be known (random), the unknown because we forgot, and more in a large taxonomy of varieties of the unknown. None of these unknowns are something we worship, something we look to for cosmic meaning, something that grants eternal life, or something that creates the universe. An unknown is not an excuse for anthropomorphism. An unknown is not a mystery—not in the religious, “mystification” sense of mystery. An unknown is not a void in our being crying out for a leap of faith. It’s just bleeding unknown.

And then, Miller quotes Lorenzo Albacete, one of the strange breed who are priest-physicist combinations. A lot of them are real experts at mystification, but Albacete goes for one of the old favorites:

Faith is like trying to explain to your uncomprehending family why you have fallen in love with so-and-so. They have all the arguments, and you can understand what they’re saying, but you can’t help it, you’re in love.

Sigh. From where I stand, faith is more like explaining to your uncomprehending family why you’re forty and still have an imaginary friend, but let that pass. What I want to know is why this love vs. evidence juxtaposition is such a popular apologetic move.

Maybe it’s because faith is like love—a species of insanity. I’m serious. I love my wife, but that’s a different feeling than the utter brainless infatuation I endured when I first fell in love with her. Half my brain, I think, shut down at the time. I can see it’s useful for pair-bonding and propagation of the species and so forth, but I never want to live through anything like that again. What the apologetic move relies on, I guess, must be a sense of “knowing” that might accompany love, that may seem unrelated to any normal cognitive process but infused with certainty, especially if you’re suffering from the condition. You damn well know, and to hell with any consideration of evidence. All I can say is that thankfully, you get over infatuation eventually. Mature love and trust requires a lot more than acting like a hormone-addled idiot.

Then there’s the idea that acting lovingly in a relationship of trust requires us to disregard evidence. The issue is trust, and a skeptical evaluation of evidence demands an unacceptable distancing of ones self from the relationship. Even briefly setting aside trust eventually undermines trust. Maybe. (I’m not convinced.) But again, I don’t see how this kind of blind trust has much to do with the well-earned trust within a solid relationship, never mind that cognitively it’s still bleeding useless.

I suspect that one reason for the popularity of such apologetic moves is that they’re conversation-stoppers. The skeptic gets reduced to a state of sputtering incomprehension when faced with the inanity of the statement, and the believer walks off with a beatific smile.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11815695119406091177 Interested

    I missed the Lisa Miller article…thanks for calling it to my attention.
    I particularly like you comparison to new, infatuated love. I’m with you! Going through all that again would be a bit taxing. I’ll take settled and comfortable earned love and trust any day.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16731690779682393927 Philip

    I think you leave out one important kind of unknown: that which we would dearly like to know but which may be unknowable, at least by scientific and rational methods.

    The possibility of this kind of unknown presents a kind of Rorschach test. Naturalists look at the unknown and say that we’re working on it with science or that if we can’t figure it out there’s probably nothing interesting there for us to know. Supernaturalists look at the unknown and ask whether some of what’s not known is quite important but unfortunately not knowable by our scientific or rational methods. They then speculate, express their wishes, or resort to mythological story-telling to take some stance towards that possibility of the unknowable unknown.

    What I mean by saying there’s a Rorschach test here is that how we confront the possibility of the important, unknowable unknown is a matter of character. I don’t know of a knockdown argument that this kind of unknown is wildly improbable or impossible.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Philip: “I think you leave out one important kind of unknown: that which we would dearly like to know but which may be unknowable, at least by scientific and rational methods.”

    Not really. There are two problems I see here.

    First, I suspect there is an assumption here about a fixed package of “scientific and rational methods.” That is not my view.

    Second, the issue here is independent of any consideration of method. What I see here is not a claim for an alternative way to attain important knowledge. If it were so, we could have a conversation about whether this succeeds (see the bit about no fixed methods). Instead, the popular apologetic move is a cheap trick, trying to turn an unknown into a something at least vaguely knowable by mysterious means.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Here are a couple of guesses as to why LOVE gets used in defense of FAITH.

    (1) Love as “subjective taste”: I love so-and-so, and you cannot object to this, because love is a matter of personal preference or taste. She might not be your cup of tea, but she is my heart’s desire.

    To the extent that love is conceived of as being a matter of personal preference or taste, love is removed from the realm of rational criticism and evaluation.

    A defender of faith has a similar desire to remove his/her faith from the realm of rational criticism and evaluation.

    (2) Love as “intuitive knowledge”: In loving so-and-so, I am grasping the inner core of another person’s being. I have arrived at an intuitive knowledge of another soul, and can perceive more than just the obvious and outward aspects of my beloved. This intuitve knowledge is difficult to put into words, but it can still be rational to base beliefs and decisions on such intuitions.

    There is something to the idea of intuitive knowledge. Our brains do a good deal of interpretation, at least in the area of visual perception, that is at a pre-conscious level. For the most part, visual perception is reliable even though grounded on “intuitions” that are not easily expressible.

    Something similar might well be occurring when we meet new people and get to know people. Intuitions and judgments about the character of people may sometimes be based on subtle indications of their thoughts and intentions. Some of this stuff may be interpreted at a pre-conscious level, and be difficult to describe.

    OK, but does this help the case for faith? If faith is trust and reliance upon the authority of the Catholic Church or upon the authority of the Bible, then what are the subtle hints and indications that we skeptics are missing? There is plenty of evidence that is easily observed on the surface here, and it is hard to see what the analogue to subtle signs would be in this case.

    What about faith as trust and reliance upon God? The analogy does not seem to work here, because there is no obvious and visible evidence of God’s actions to contrast with some alleged subtle and difficult-to-describe activity of God, unless you want to view the world with all its evils and imperfections as the obvious and visible aspect of God, and the religious/mystical sense of the presence of God as the subtle aspect of God.


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